- Hugh of Saint Victor
Hugh of St. Victor might well be considered the 'forgotten man' of twelfth-century Western theology, compared with his famous (and in some cases notorious) contemporaries – including Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux. Little is known about Hugh's life, and his origins have long been a matter of dispute. One tradition identifies him as a Saxon from Hamersleben, while another claims him as a Fleming from Ypres. The consensus now seems to favour the Saxon version. He arrived at the Augustinian abbey of St. Victor in Paris at some time between 1115 and 1118, and lived and taught there [End Page 241] until his death in 1141. Unlike many of his Parisian contemporaries, he did not become involved in theological controversies and events beyond the walls of his abbey, but he did acquire a reputation as an outstanding teacher and writer – partly because of the breadth and quality of his writings, and partly for the way in which he harmonized the monastic and scholastic approaches to theology and spirituality. Over the next 200 years he was regularly described as one of the major figures of medieval learning – Dante placed him in the Fourth Heaven of Paradise (Paradiso xii.133), and Bonaventure described him as combining the skill of Anselm in reasoning, Bernard in preaching, and Richard of St. Victor in contemplation.
Despite this, there is no comprehensive modern English study of his thought. Only a selection of his writings is available in English translation, mostly long out-of-print. A new critical edition of his works is in progress as part of the Corpus Christianorum series, but several of them still lack any modern edition at all. In this context, Paul Rorem's new book is particularly welcome.
The sheer diversity and scale of Hugh's writings pose a major challenge for Rorem in identifying 'an effective order' in which to organize his presentation of Hugh's work (p. 13). He adopts what he describes as a 'properly Victorine way': he follows the pedagogical arrangement given in Abbot Gilduin of St. Victor's posthumous list and index, rather than adopting a chronological or thematic approach. This is a sensible choice, which preserves the contemporary framework within which Hugh's work was seen, as well as demonstrating the remarkable coherence of Hugh's own programme of teaching and study.
Rorem begins with Hugh's specifically pedagogical writings, and especially his treatise Didascalicon on the art of learning, and then considers works relating to creation and history. Hugh's major doctrinal treatise, De sacramentis, provides the focus for the second section, on the 'framework of doctrine'. The final section covers Hugh's mystical and spiritual writings. Hugh's important commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy of the Pseudo-Dionysius is also discussed briefly in an appendix.
Rorem provides a clear, readable and reliable account of Hugh's writings, rounded off with a comprehensive bibliography and list of editions and translations. He presents Hugh's works by summarizing their contents, often with extensive quotations, and by showing their relationship to the overall framework of Hugh's thought. But as a general rule he does not venture beyond Hugh's own writings. There are occasional comments on Hugh's [End Page 242] sources, but no systematic attempt to situate him in the context of earlier writers. Similarly, there is very little discussion of the relationship between his ideas and the contemporary debates and controversies, or of his influence on his contemporaries and on subsequent thinkers. So, while this book makes a significant contribution as the first modern study of Hugh of St. Victor in English, it only tells part of the story. A full account of Hugh's importance and significance must still be awaited.
The University of Western Australia